You see many unusual things when you spend two-thirds of your life in locker rooms and press boxes as a sportswriter. At the time, they seemed insignificant. Now, looking back, I cherish those amusing memories.
In an era before social media, we were bound by truth and trust. I can’t help but chuckle at some of these behind-the-scenes moments.
Like the afternoon I drove Shaquille O’Neal home from Orlando Magic practice. We stopped at a small local pizza parlor because the woman there made his meals. As we walked from the parking lot, a young woman saw Shaq. She took a moment before asking, “Aren’t you … Michael Jordan?”
Always playful, Shaq laughed and leaned against the wall, saying, “Well, yes, I am,” before striking up a conversation.
Speaking of Jordan, I can never forget Valentine’s Day in 1990 when the Chicago Bulls played at Orlando. When Jordan got to his locker, his jersey was gone.
The Bulls saw several fans wearing No. 23 jerseys, and they tried to buy or trade for one, but they were all too small. So Jordan wore the team spare jersey, No. 12. Teams must bring a spare in case the original jersey gets ripped during the game.
A security guard was eventually fired for taking the original jersey.
One of my favorite people was Payne Stewart. He played Phil Mickelson in an 18-hole playoff for the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and the day started cool and dreary, so Stewart wore a rain jacket. He felt too constrained by it, so he ripped the sleeves off. Stewart won with a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole.
Speaking of Stewart, he spent years wearing knickers. Fans loved it, but security guards at the Magic Kingdom didn’t get the memo.
He won the Walt Disney World Golf Classic in 1983 by two shots. When he got to the media tent, guards wouldn’t let him in because they thought he was a caddie. Disney outfitted caddies with knickers for the tournament to match Mickey Mouse’s golf attire.
One more Stewart story. He was a season ticket holder for the Magic and loved playing pranks on other fans. He’d attach a fishing line to a $10 bill and toss it on the ground. As someone bent over to pick it up, he’d snatch it back while many in his section laughed uncontrollably. Alcohol may have been involved.
I will never forget his playful attitude and the way he embraced life.
Baseball legend Kirby Puckett was one of the happiest people I’ve ever known. When he wasn’t on the field, he usually watched professional wrestling in front of a television. He rented a banquet room and a large-screen television once during Spring Training to watch one of the big WWF (now known as WWE) pay-per-view events.
NASCAR has always been known for being creative, and Richard Childress Racing certainly took it to a higher gear.
Twenty years ago, teams learned they gain speed by locking bumpers and pushing each other at tracks like the Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. The only rub was the car doing the push couldn’t make sudden moves left or right because it could knock the leading car out of control.
The crew slathered slippery gel on the rear bumpers so the driver of a trailing car didn’t have to be so precise while pushing. When the RCR team arrived at Daytona, a crewman went to Sam’s Club to buy a case of Vagisil. Sometimes, going fast isn’t about mechanics.
Long before teams traveled by charter jets, they flew commercial. Magic players put up a dollar at baggage claim, and the player whose bag came out first won the money.
It’s a delicate subject, but NASCAR drivers can’t stop if they need to use the restroom. That’s right, they go in the car. Clint Bowyer once told me, “There are two types of drivers: ones who go in the car and those who lie about not going in the car.”
And sometimes they go in public. Just ask Martin Truex Jr. He was fined $208 after getting caught relieving himself in a parking garage in Daytona Beach. The Volusia County Beach Patrol apparently didn’t hear of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Uromysitsis.”
With that, I got to go. Literally.